The Phillies’ Bullpen Hasn’t Been Overworked
Among the many criticisms about the Phillies that have been tossed out there since the start of the season, the most recent has been that the starting rotation hasn’t been going deep enough into games, forcing manager Ryne Sandberg to rely on his bullpen more heavily and more frequently than he would like. Sandberg himself said as much in Bob Brookover’s column posted this morning:
Sandberg raised some eyebrows when he said in reference to his bullpen that “overall I would say that the guys have done a fine job competing and giving us a chance to win games.”
The bullpen’s National League-worst 5.53 earned run average would indicate otherwise, but Sandberg wasn’t just trying to protect his young relievers. He believes that his starters need to shoulder some of the blame, too.
On the surface, the rotation’s 4.05 ERA isn’t awful. The problem is that Sandberg is waving for his bullpen much sooner than he would like, and that’s making for a weary bunch of relievers. You could argue that it’s early in the season, but any time a reliever has to pitch three days in a row it takes its toll.Bob Brookover, Philadelphia Inquirer 4/16/14
Phillies starters are averaging five and two-thirds innings per start, the 23rd-most among all 30 rotations in baseball. But they’re only a third of an inning below the MLB average. In terms of total pitches, Phillies starters have thrown 1,293 of them, the 18th-most. On average, they’re throwing 99.5 pitches per start, tied for the sixth-highest rate with the Orioles and Cardinals. On a per-inning basis, Phillies starters are averaging 17.6 pitches, tied for the second-highest rate with the White Sox. The starters have been inefficient, but the bullpen hasn’t been overtaxed.
The Phillies’ bullpen has combined for 42 1/3 innings, tied with the Cubs for the 14th-most in baseball. They’ve thrown 709 pitches, the 17th-most. They’re averaging 54.5 pitches per game (13th), and 16.9 pitches per inning (t-17th). About as average as you can get.
Here’s a graphical look at Sandberg’s reliever usage. Each cell contains the number of pitches and they’re color-coded with green showing fewer pitches and red showing more pitches.
(click to enlarge)
The problem with the bullpen isn’t that they’ve been overworked (they haven’t); it’s that they just haven’t pitched remarkably well. Their 10.8 percent walk rate is a percentage point higher than the NL average for bullpens. They have struck batters out at a 20 percent rate, below the league average 24 percent. As a result, more balls have been put in play against Phillies relievers, but the Phillies have been underwhelming defensively.
As it pertains to those batted balls, they slightly lean in favor of fly balls, but their home run rate on those fly balls is the second-highest in the league at 16.3 percent, behind only the Cubs at 18.2 percent. The league average is ten percent. They’re in the bottom-third of the league in defense independent metrics like xFIP (4.47, third-worst) and SIERA (4.06, fourth-worst).
If the Phillies want to see better results out of their relievers, they’ll need to see more swings and misses, fewer walks, and mean-regression on their HR/FB rate. That — not the starting rotation going deeper into games — will be the source of a turnaround, if one is to be had.